Floridian authorities launch emergency response to sawfish crisis

Tallahassee, Florida - NOAA Fisheries and a number of partners have launched a major emergency response to battle a potential mortality crisis occurring within smalltooth sawfish populations.

The smalltooth sawfish is already threatened, and officially classified as "endangered."
The smalltooth sawfish is already threatened, and officially classified as "endangered."  © IMAGO/Pond5 Images

Reports of abnormal fish behavior and death have emerged from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), warning that a potential mortality event could hit populations of the endangered smalltooth sawfish in and around the Lower Florida Keys.

The commission published findings on March 27 that 28 sawfish mortalities had been recorded in the area, and unusual behavior, including "spinning and whirling," had been observed by scientists in others

In response, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on Wednesday announced an "emergency response" to try and rescue and rehabilitate as many of the endangered sawfish as possible.

Abnormal behavior and sawfish deaths lead to strong response

The smalltooth sawfish is an iconic inhabitant of south Florida.
The smalltooth sawfish is an iconic inhabitant of south Florida.  © IMAGO/Nature Picture Library

On top of the deaths of 28 sawfish, a minimum of 109 have been found to be behaving in ways that could indicate illness. The reported individuals include both large juvenile sawfish and adults between seven and fourteen feet long.

Adam Brame, NOAA Fisheries' sawfish recovery coordinator, said in a statement that the organization is "hopeful for positive outcomes from these rescue attempts, and grateful to our partners for their support as we work to protect this endangered species."

The emergency response will involve six coordinating organizations, including NOAA Fisheries, the FWC, Havenworth Coastal Conservation, Ripley's Aquariums, Mote Marine Laboratory, and Dynasty Marine Associates.

Smalltooth sawfish, which are federally protected as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, will be carefully removed from coastal waters and relocated to housing and rehabilitation centers owned by a number of the collaborating parties.

They plan to be released once nursed back to health, but not before the opportunity is taken to gather "critical information to learn about the nature of the distress."

"If the opportunity presents itself, this would be the first attempt ever to rescue and rehabilitate smalltooth sawfish from the wild," explained Brame. "It's important to note that active rescue and rehabilitation are not always effective in saving stranded animals."

Brame said that they expect final mortality numbers to be far bigger than they currently are, a fact that could have dire consequences: "Given the limited population size of smalltooth sawfish, the mortality of at least two dozen sawfish could have an impact on the recovery of this species."

Cover photo: IMAGO/Pond5 Images

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